Putting on the catz

It is 50 years since the founding of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. To celebrate, the college commissioned a permanent exhibition. Architect Adrian Friend and RIBAJ’s art editor Patrick Myles collaborated on the project. Friend explains his rationale and Myles adds a footnote

The ‘out of architecture’ exhibition was conceived by Friend and Company Architects to mark the half centenary of architect Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College Oxford, which opened in 1964. Before setting up my own practice, I had worked for Hodder Associates and Troughton McAslan, both of whom worked in and added to the college. 

The exhibition celebrates the objects that grew out of the remarkable architecture thanks to Jacobsen’s all-encompassing approach to design. It is a permanent addition to the St Catherine’s College library and is informed by the structural grid made visible in the expressed concrete beams that deflect indirect natural light into the library and its furniture and shelving, also by Jacobsen. 

  • The displays use  a theme of objects seen  in silhouette.
    The displays use a theme of objects seen in silhouette.
  • The exhibition in place at St Catherine’s College library
    The exhibition in place at St Catherine’s College library
  • Vola taps and shower fittings (1969) mounted on a black-tiled surface as part of  the display.
    Vola taps and shower fittings (1969) mounted on a black-tiled surface as part of the display.

We drew inspiration from the college’s sense of tradition, as expressed in the modern architecture and repeated in Jacobsen’s design of innovative products manufactured by Fritz Hansen, Georg Jensen, Kvadrat, Louis Poulsen, Stelton and Vola. We display each manufacturer within exhibition furniture based on Jacobsen’s design for the St Catherine’s College library shelving. The exhibition reconnects the iconic products to the mid-century modern era when good design was based on universal ideas: quality and aesthetic delight were as important as a desire to improve the way people lived. 

Rarely has a single piece of architecture created such a coherent and timeless design legacy as ‘Catz’. Jacobsen’s work reminds us of the ability of architecture to create a timeless sense of place that lifts the spirits and makes one feel comfortable and more aware of our surroundings. In each design is a painterly use of familiar colours and elemental qualities commonly found in our own English landscape.
Of it, Sir Nicholas Pevsner wrote in his Buildings of England: ‘Here is a perfect piece of architecture. It has a consistent plan, and every detail is meticulously worked out. Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and the parts and felt wherever one moves or stops.’

On display is the latest example of Jacobsen’s legacy, a prototype of the Fritz Hansen wooden ‘Oxford’ chair. In manufacture for the first time since 1962, it was relaunched in October. Based on a design for a tutor’s chair, the distinctive pressed laminated wooden shell of the Oxford chair was Hansen’s attempt to compete internationally with Charles and Ray Eames. 

Jacobsen’s tutor’s chair design evolved into his high back Oxford chair taking prominent place at the High Table in the St Catherine’s College’s Hall. The seating was designed to accommodate the Master and Fellows, while the students sat on low benches at the long communal tables. The original Oxford chairs in wood veneer from 1962 continue to line the High Table in the Hall to this day and are a hallmark of Fritz Hansen’s sustainable quality and collection of timeless design icons.

We include in the exhibition an example of the St Catherine’s Easy Chair and Stool, as designed for each of the 320 student study bedrooms. 
Also on display is the original model of St Catherine’s College made by Jacobsen’s practice, on loan from The Danmarks Kunstbibliotek, Danish National Art Library. 

 

‘The exhibition reconnects iconic products to the mid-century modern era when good design was based on universal ideas: quality and aesthetic delight’

The St Catherine’s College archive is displayed as a historic timeline in which each of the eleven College Masters is celebrated, as well as material from The St Catherine’s Society and The Rowing Society. This is an exhibition of the College’s life, not just its materiality. 
Patrick Myles adds: 
The information graphics sit on back-lit acrylic panels attached within the units. The typography uses a contemporary typeface, FS Albert, from a relatively new Foundry called Fontsmith. I wanted to look beyond the classic sans serif faces, and found this modern font with curves and rounded edges that reflect the lines in some of Jacobsen’s drawings of door handles and other items in the display.